Friday, June 17, 2011

East Asia Regionalism

This essay is based on my notes when moderating the luncheon talk of the Foreign Minister of Indonesia on 30 May 2011. On behalf of ASEAN ISIS and ISIS Malaysia I would like to thank Minister Marty for agreeing to address this luncheon on the subject of “East Asia Regionalism The View from Jakarta”. I suppose it’s no coincidence that I have been asked as during the period from January 1999 to April 2008, I was the Foreign Minister of Malaysia.

ASEAN Leaders, Ministers and officials were deeply involved in the polemics on the possible establishment of an East Asian mechanism for cooperation. At that stage ASEAN was eager to see how they could replicate successful regional blocs like NAFTA and EU. Whilst there was agreement that there should be greater collaboration when faced with the challenges of globalization, ASEAN could not agree on the form.

Dr Mahathir in the meantime came up with the idea that an East Asian grouping called East Asia Economic Group (EAEG) based on collaboration between ASEAN and North East Asian countries for their mutual benefits was necessary. This was immediately rejected by Japan and Korea together, as well as countries in ASEAN and the dialogue partners because US and its allies Australia and New Zealand were excluded from the group. This was not acceptable since it was exclusive to East Asian countries. It seems strange that countries within the East Asian region are obstructed to form its own grouping for economic collaboration and cooperation whilst North America and Europe have formed their own mechanism.

Those who opposed the idea of an East Asian regional grouping justified their position on the ground that they did not want to repeat the past divide of the Cold War period. The truth may be due to the sheer size of the East Asian economies which created fear and perception of threats. Some even construed that this attempt had an ulterior motive or hidden agenda. Malaysia under the leadership of Dr. Mahathir stood firm and argued that East Asia must have its own process and mechanism to compete fairly with other regional blocs. The dissenting group even amongst ASEAN countries particularly Indonesia and Singapore were vocal about their objection. This concept was then mellowed down to a mere caucus named East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) purportedly to gain acceptance. I remember in one of the meetings of ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Jakarta, when I made the offer to host the Secretariat of the caucus in Malaysia, it was vehemently opposed by Indonesia and Singapore in particular. They were actually influenced by the US position that an exclusive East Asia would not be good for the region.

As there was no consensus in ASEAN and countries of North East Asia, this initiative was stillborn. However the financial crisis of 1997 changed that and Malaysia initiated the establishment of ASEAN +3 from 14-15 December 1997 in Kuala Lumpur to cooperate in dealing with the financial crisis. Oddly enough ASEAN +3 consisting of all countries of East Asia was acceptable. Dr. Mahathir was contented with this formula and remarked ‘a rose is still a rose by whatever name it is called’.

From ASEAN +3 the concept of regional cooperation in East Asia began to take shape. ASEAN at the driver’s seat under ASEAN + 3 and steps were taken for confidence building measures to achieve the desired comfort level which later allowed initiatives like ASEAN +10, ASEAN +1, to be added. Malaysia during the inaugural meeting of the East Asia Summit on 14 December 2005 invited Russia to attend as an attempt to make her part of the East Asia Summit process. However, it was not successful due to lack of consensus mostly due to US pressure on some ASEAN members such as Japan and Korea. This new process was not objected particularly by the US though, as it was not really East Asia as it included India, Australia and New Zealand. Russia was unhappy with its exclusion even though it had an East Asian footprint. The process was premised on geopolitical and convergence of strategic interests between the participating countries and countries outside the region, with the prerequisite condition that countries outside ASEAN must ratify the “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation” (TAC) prior to their admission into the process. Can it then be said that East Asia Regionalism has finally arrived and takes its place in the international order?

It can be argued that regionalism is an inevitable outcome of globalization. The idea is no longer fuzzy today, but there are many more obstacles and building blocks that need to be constructed before we can realize its full potentials for the mutual benefits of the regional countries.

I am glad to hear the Indonesian Foreign Minister say that the East Asia process was not started in a vacuum. It would allow ASEAN to play its role at the national, bilateral, regional and global level collectively to create peace, stability and prosperity. There have been different initiatives and ideas formulated for sustaining this regional cooperation and can be a sound basis in the creation of a regional identity and community. Regionalism without a doubt has worked as a catalyst for development, growth and competition. Regionalism is now viewed on the basis of cooperation in a wider spectrum of activities.

In this context it argued that it acts as a process operating within the ambit of growing nationalism, internationalism and interdependence. As Michael Shultz put it, “…regionalism refers in the first place to the general phenomenon, denoting formal projects as well as processes in the broadest possible sense….regionalism represents the body of ideas, values and concrete objectives that are aimed at creating, maintaining or modifying the provision of security and wealth, peace and development within a region : the urge by any set of actors to reorganize along a particular regional space.” Mittlemen put it as “regionalism today is emerging as a potent force in the globalization process – as one important component of globalization. It is not only a chapter of globalization, but can also be seen as a response and challenge to globalization” even if it lacks institutional and bureaucratic structures of regional organization like the EU. This allows far greater overreach for ASEAN to compete in the global economy in the sense of inter-regional, intraregional and globally.

Regionalization pre cold war did not seem to exist in East Asia due to a myriad of factors, amongst them the diversity of this region, different historical experiences, threats perception, political fragility and transition. In order to evolve an East Asian sense of regionalism it has to take into account these varying factors. What we can say today, notwithstanding the lackluster start is that, it has now taken roots – beginning with ASEAN +3, ASEAN +1 and in 2005 the holding of the first East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur. Since its establishment ASEAN has moved from exclusiveness to inclusiveness. ASEAN through bilateral and regional contacts has built the bridge that connects the deep-rooted divisions and forging East Asian regionalism. ASEAN has taken the initiatives for ARF, ASEAN +3 and now the East Asia Summit.

Indonesia is involved as a chairman of ASEAN to seek solution in the Thailand-Cambodia conflict and is engaging countries in the Middle East to find a model in their process towards democratization. Indeed Indonesia is pivotal to the success of Asean and now with the East Asia cooperation that emanated from ASEAN +3, Indonesia is able to place herself as a regional and global player by taking cognizance of the challenges presented with the emergence of new economic and military powers in Asia in this multi-polar world.

I remember ASEAN had been known for its slow and step-by-step but pragmatic approach when confronted with any change of paradigms. This practice and pragmatic approach has actually brought relative peace and security. ASEAN +3 as well as the establishment of the East Asia Summit process are clear indicators of the evolutionary approach taken by ASEAN. Whilst in other parts of the world we are witnessing uncertainties, turmoil and upheavals caused by natural disasters and conflicts, East Asia is relatively peaceful and stable to enable the region to move ahead with greater cooperation. As for ASEAN’s centrality it can be said that it is constantly under challenge but the fact remains that it is not something that comes automatically. According to Minister Marty ASEAN has earned and claimed it by contributing to its strength and success.

Definitely the old regionalism based on common ideology and bi-polar security regime, is giving way to the influence of new regionalism on economic regional blocs and sub-regional interdependence (e.g. such as ChiangMai initiative or environmental issue sub-groupings) and other non traditional security concerns. This natural progression from ideological centric to economic centric groupings is due to the transformation of the economic structure coupled with an ever-increasing interdependence among the regional countries. This interaction among states with wider interest will continue to drive the force of this regional coherence.

Minister Marty’s articulation and assessment of East Asia regionalism today and the future demonstrates Indonesia’s intent to position itself as a regional and global player.

ASEAN is still desirous in playing a central role or be at the driver’s seat or be the cornerstone of East Asian regionalism but there is always the question whether this can be sustained over the long period in the presence of the big powers. As stated by Minister Marty this cannot be achieved purely on demanding to be so but instead ASEAN must contribute to that process by sustaining a flexible regionalism approach that interacts with other mechanisms and processes outside the region. In this way East Asia regionalism will continue to evolve as a stronger mechanism with new ideas and initiatives taking into account the changing global landscape. The Foreign Minister of Indonesia said he expects when the comfort level grows stronger and stronger, ASEAN can then proceed with developing Conflict resolution and Dispute prevention mechanisms for the region. ASEAN will become more credible and ASEAN member will be able to resolve conflict within the ASEAN region.

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